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Independence activist flying home to Western Sahara

By Al Goodman, CNN
People hold Western Saharan flags and a poster of Aminatou Haidar during a demonstration on Dec 12.
People hold Western Saharan flags and a poster of Aminatou Haidar during a demonstration on Dec 12.
  • NEW: Aminatou Haidar flying on Spanish government jet
  • She began her hunger strike on November 16, 2009
  • Haidar demands to return to Western Sahara without acknowledging Moroccan sovereignty
  • Morocco claimed Western Sahara early in 1976
  • Morocco
  • Western Sahara
  • Africa

Madrid, Spain (CNN) -- An award-winning Western Sahara independence activist who has been on a month-long hunger strike was flying from Spain late Thursday to the airport where Morocco refused her entry last month, CNN partner station CNN+ reported.

A Spanish government jet carrying the activist, Aminatou Haidar, 43, left Lanzarote Airport in Spain's Canary Islands around 10:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. ET), en route to El Aaiun Airport in Western Sahara, CNN+ reported.

On Thursday evening, Haidar left a Lanzarote hospital, where she had gone hours earlier complaining of abdominal pains, and returned to the airport, where she had conducted most of her 32-day hunger strike. She then boarded the plane bound for her home.

She told reporters her return was a "triumph for human rights and the Western Sahara cause, CNN+ reported.

The plane took off moments after the Spanish prime minister's office issued a statement that said Haidar's return to Western Sahara "would be a gesture that honors the King and authorities of Morocco, showing once again their commitment to democracy."

The statement added that Spain "shares the concern of the international community" over the status of the disputed Western Sahara territory but that while awaiting a United Nations brokered agreement, Spain "confirms that Moroccan law applies in the Western Sahara territory."

But Haidar had demanded to return to Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, without having to acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over it.

Haidar arrived at the airport on Lanzarote island -- just off Morocco's west coast -- on November 14, shortly after Moroccan authorities took her passport and refused her entry at El Aaiun Airport in Western Sahara.

She began her hunger strike November 16. It was not immediately clear if Haidar was continuing her hunger strike as she was flying back to Western Sahara.

The statement from the Spanish prime minister's office, and its timing, appeared to be an element in breaking the diplomatic impasse between Spain and Morocco over the Haidar case. The statement also promised Spain's backing for more cooperation between the European Union and Morocco.

The statement, viewed by CNN, said that Spain's prime minister and foreign minister have been directly involved in negotiations in recent days to try to secure Haidar's return.

During the hunger strike, a routine had almost set in. Haidar, in a wheelchair and aided by supporters, would come out of a small room where she slept at the Lanzarote airport in the morning and pass by TV cameras, heading to a nearby bathroom.

But on Thursday, the pace suddenly quickened. In the pre-dawn hours, Haidar was suffering from abdominal pains and nausea, according to her lawyer, Ines Miranda. Haidar was rushed to hospital, although her lawyer said she was receiving treatment for the pain, but no food.

Hours later on Thursday, the European Parliament abruptly stopped short of voting on the Haidar case when lawmaker Martin Schulz of Germany told the parliament that it appeared "there would be a solution today."

"We can help Ms. Haidar more by being quiet rather than voting a resolution," Schulz said, according to the parliament's press office.

At a news conference last week, Haidar said in a statement read by a supporter, "My demand is to return to Western Sahara, to hug my children and to live with them and my mother, but in dignity."

Since the hunger strike began, Madrid has offered her Spanish citizenship or political asylum, but she declined.

In an earlier statement e-mailed to reporters, Haidar thanked Spain but said, "I do not plan on requesting Spanish, American or Italian citizenship. I live under Moroccan occupation and I advocate, as do the rest of the Saharawi people, for our self-determination."

Spain formally withdrew as the decades-long colonial power in Western Sahara early in 1976, shortly after the Moroccan king led a "green march" with 350,000 Moroccan civilians into the territory to lay claim to it.

A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front -- a group made up of mostly Saharawis, which favors Western Sahara independence -- ensued and was finally halted, after more than a decade, in 1991, through a United Nations-brokered cease-fire, according to the CIA World Factbook.

A U.N.-organized referendum on the territory's final status has been repeatedly postponed. Morocco has presented an autonomy plan to the United Nations but the Polisario countered with an independence plan for the territory's 405,000 people, who are Muslims of Arab or Berber descent.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington, D.C., which last year awarded Haidar a human rights laureate, released on her behalf her statement rejecting Spain's offer of citizenship.

Haidar was recently in New York to receive another award, the Train Foundation's Civil Courage Prize for 2009, just before she flew to Western Sahara and was refused entry in November, a foundation spokeswoman, Barbara Becker, told CNN.

But a senior Moroccan government official, Khalihenna Ould Errachid, last week told CNN partner station CNN+ in an interview that Haidar "has always been Moroccan."

"She was never a part of the ex-Spanish Sahara," the Moroccan official added, "and I say that Aminatou Haidar should return to her Moroccan nationality and say it clearly, and tomorrow she can return, without problem."